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Jean W. Toomer, first director of Howard County Office of Human Rights, dies

Jean Toomer was a community activist and human rights and peace advocate.
Jean Toomer was a community activist and human rights and peace advocate. (Sun Staff / Baltimore Sun)

A homegoing service for Howard County activist and human rights and peace advocate Jean W. Toomer, who served as the first director of the Howard County Office of Human Rights, will be held at 1 p.m. Aug. 14 at Celebration Church, 7101 Riverwood Drive in Columbia.

Ms. Toomer, who was 93, died March 10 in her sleep at the Vi at Aventura retirement community in Aventura, Florida, where she had lived since moving from Columbia in 2015.

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“Jean was a very strong advocate of human rights for everyone. She had a great deal of dignity and everything she did, she did with dignity,” said Elizabeth “Liz” Bobo, who served as Howard County executive from 1986 to 1990 and later in the Maryland House of Delegates.

“She was always calm and strong and exuded dignity,” Ms. Bobo said. “She had very strong opinions on human rights and treated all with respect, even those who had opposing views. No matter what, she was kind and positive, which is a great lesson for people.”

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The former Jean Elizabeth Warrick, daughter of John Harrison Warrick, owner of a brick masonry business, and his wife, Esther Snowden Warrick, a Savannah public schools principal, was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia.

She was a graduate and class valedictorian of Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute, a boarding school in Sedalia, North Carolina, and later earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in government and political science from Howard University in Washington, where she was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

“Jean grew up with strong Christian values, knowing her savior, Jesus Christ at an early age as well as learning the value of education and the rich culture, history, challenges and resilience of Blacks in the South,” according to a biographical profile of Ms. Toomer submitted by her family.

“During the course of my educational career, I was exposed to teachers and other influences that expected us to do well,” Ms. Toomer told The Baltimore Sun in a 1999 interview. “In fact, we were taught that we had to be better because of racism and the discrimination we would face in society.”

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While at Howard, she met and fell in love with a fellow student, Clarence Douglass Toomer, whom she married in 1950. They settled in Washington, where her husband began a 35-year career at the National Security Agency, rising to become a senior cryptologist.

Because of her husband’s work, the couple lived in Herzogenaurach, Germany, from 1960 to 1964, where they were often the only family of color, family members said.

Mr. Toomer also sold real estate, and in 1968 the couple built a home in Columbia and moved there to the Longfellow neighborhood with their five children.

From 1969 through the 1990s, Ms. Toomer was a visible Howard County activist whose focus was on civil and human rights and issues facing African Americans and families. She also worked tirelessly to fulfill the vision and legacy of James W. Rouse, the driving force behind the concept and building of Columbia.

Ms. Toomer was director of the city’s community services for the Columbia Association and served as president of the Family Life Center, where she implemented before- and after-school programs for children of working parents, in addition to providing services for senior citizens and developing a program for low-income residents to gain membership in the Columbia Association.

In 1989, she took $5,000 of her own money and established Community Building in Howard County, a nonprofit human rights organization that addressed concerns about ethnic and cultural diversity, and she was the founder in 1993 of the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center at Howard Community College.

“Children that are exposed to violence, grow up to be violent,” Ms. Toomer told The Sun in a 1994 interview.

Human rights and government action were under the county’s Citizen Services Department, Ms. Bobo said.

“When I became county executive, Jean asked if I’d create a separate department that reported to the county executive, and we established the Howard County Office of Human Rights,” Ms. Bobo said, appointing Ms. Toomer as its first director.

“She could not have been stronger in her actions and positions which had an impact on me,” Ms. Bobo said.

After retiring in 1990, Ms. Toomer exhibited no signs of slowing down. She was active in the local chapter of the NAACP and joined the Council of Elders of the Black Community of Howard County in conjunction with Howard County public schools, which works to support educational, cultural and social opportunities for the county’s African American citizens, and where she chaired the organization’s Black Student, Family and Community Network committees.

“Jean was committed to interweaving the Black experience into the Howard County curriculum, having it recognized all year, not just during Black History Month,” according to her biographical profile.

She chaired the board of the African American Museum of Maryland and was named in 1994 one of Maryland’s Most Beautiful People, followed five years later by induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame. She was the featured speaker in I999 at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

She was honored for her work in 1994 when she received the Community Spirit Award from the Howard County Domestic Violence Center and in 2000 with the Community Action Council’s Humanitarian Award.

Ms. Toomer told The Sun in 1994 that she performed community work hoping to further peace and justice. “True peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice and brotherhood,” she said, quoting Dr. King.

She and her husband, who died in 2017, enjoyed vacationing at the beach, taking cruises and vacationing in Florida and the Caribbean.

Ms. Toomer is survived by a son, David Toomer of Columbia; three daughters, Debra Toomer of Miami, Florida, Diana Toomer Burks of Atlanta and Donna Toomer Watkins of Atlanta; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another son, Douglas Toomer, died some years ago.

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